Another quick update from Poland. It was a hot few days in Gdansk. The old women walked around with parasols, and if they had no parasols handy, they used plastic bags. I and a friend visited Malbork, which is a gigantic castle whose heart was built in the 14th century by Teutonic knights. Polish trains are on time and pretty nice, but the train stations are stupendously confusing. Before getting on the train, I was treated to a loud debate between two platforms concerning which one was the right one for the Malbork train. Gdanksers took sides, and argued at length. Each side of the argument insisted they were waiting at the right platform. Then, as the train approached the right platform, the very people who’d been loudly insisting the wrong platform was the right one picked up their bags and sweatily made their way to the right one. Which is the one I happened to be standing on, purely, and I add purely, by random chance.
Malbork is stunningly huge and strangely beautiful, given that it was a purely functional defensive fortress. To get there, you walk through a broad enclosed courtyard, then no fewer than three (3) defensive enclosures, each featuring its own moat. Murder holes, arrow slits, and crenellations abound — northern Poland has for centuries been one of the most hotly-contested areas on the face of the earth, and even the Teutonic knights, who built the complex, could only hold on to it for a couple of centuries. It was heavily damaged during WWII, but like almost everything else in Poland, has been lovingly and faithfully restored. You can wander freely around, visiting the banqueting hall, kitchen, torture chamber (they stationed musicians outside to cover up the victims’ screams), and the St. Anne Chapel, which is a ghostly ruin in the process of being restored. While we were there, a gigantic medieval fair was in progress, which meant plenty of re-created medieval combat, processions with standards, people walking around on stilts terrifying the passers-by, and music from sackbutters and fagottists.
The National Museum in Gdansk is housed in an unobtrusively-restored Franciscan monastery. There’s a giant section featuring porcelain and faience, but all the visitors go immediately to the second floor, where Hans Memling’s Last Judgment triptych is to be found. Memling and his studio painted th it on commission for the Medici’s banker, who wanted to install it in a Florentine Church. A Gdansk pirate named Bennecke had other ideas, he seized it, along with scads of treasure, in 1473. Gdansk held on to it through the centuries, even when Russian and Prussian potentates tried all manner of blandishments and bribes to acquire it. The Nazis took it, then the Russians, but it was returned to Gdansk in 1956. Fortunately for English-speaking visitors, there is a 3-page long description of the symbolism and history of the painting which perfectly mixes academic knowledge with lively commentary. I spent 30 minutes before this mesmerizing picture, and other visitors did the same. So much to enjoy (especially the devils with butterfly wings), so much to decode (the gate to Heaven is housed in a minutely detailed Gothic cathedral that’s as much of a joy to see as real bricks-and-mortar Gothic cathedrals). There are also interesting pictures from Polish painters of the 18th and 19th centuries, which I’d love to describe, but I’m stuck in a hot Warsaw Internet cafe without access to my notes, so I’ll spare you the details.
Then it was off to Oliwa, a suburb of Gdanks which features an odd little cathedral with a world-famous organ. The housing is meticulously carved and features numerous angels who play real trumpets and ring real bells. I was lucky enough to visit during the summer organ festival. A student from Cracow played a program of mainly Polish composers, and did so with panache and verve.
I finished up in Gdansk with a nice little walk through the countryside in the Bretowo suburb, where I was staying. Gdansk does, in fact, have lots of Socialist high-rise housing, but the virtue of stacking people on top of each other is that this leaves plenty of room for luscious countryside to remain unpaved and undeveloped. To the west of Gdansk are miles of lovely deciduous forests growing on rolling, sandy hills.
That’s all for now. I’m not finding Poland to be filled with wireless hotspots, so these dispatches are typed hastily on sticky keyboards in anonymous Internet cafes. I hope you enjoy them nevertheless.